Sunday, August 30, 2009
Roma: The Novel of Ancient Rome
© 2007 Steven Saylor
When I first saw this book's full title, I was amused by what seemed to be presumption. The novel of ancient Rome? Really? Its plot summary -- a thousand years of Roman history as seen through the eyes of one family's many generations -- immediately caught my interest, though, and soon enough I was caught up in the epic story told here. Eleven story sections tell Rome's story from 1000 BC to 1 AD, beginning with the tale of a tribe of salt-traders who encamp on the Tiber's banks once a year during their annual treks up and down the Italian peninsula and ending with the beginnings of Empire. In that very first story, the progenitor of all our future antagonists acquires a lump of gold with a hole bore through it so that it might be worn as a necklace. The lump is said to possess the essence of Rome's first god, Fascinus -- the winged phallus. Worn on the neck, it is said to provide protection powers for women in childbirth and against the evil eye. The amulet is passed from generation to generation, giving the reader a "ground" of sorts.
As said, there are eleven stories here, and while the gaps between them are not overly large, sometimes history happens in between them and two stories may deal with radically different circumstances, so Saylor has to set the stage -- several times. Exposition is handled mostly by the narrator (who is not very intrusive), although sometimes characters step up. They don't always do it well, but given how much exposition Saylor does have to deliver, it's impressive to me that it only seemed weak a couple of times. Readers should note that since we are dealing with eleven stories set in eleven different periods, there is a wealth of characters to adjust to -- but it only took a page or two before getting the feel of them. Our eleven antagonists present a wide range of characters, although they don't always keep the same family names: a thousand years of history isn't kind to many families. Our family splits into two families in the beginning, for instance, and one of them eventually vanishes while the other experiences rising and falling tides of fortune. The antagonists are different from Saylor's sub Rosa character of Gordianus the Finder: some of them are downright despicable. Although the book's text consists of eleven stories, I wouldn't call this a book of short stories: they're too tightly connected to really exist on their own. All of them are well done, connecting to the reader early. Some chapters in the books' early middle set my blood boiling. Most of them deal with political matters, but there's at least one horror story here and at least one romance. It should be noted that the book is about Roma, the city, and not the empire that you and I may think of when hearing "Rome" -- that syllable that manages to convey so much meaning. The stories are set strictly in Rome, with the map not expanding beyond the Field of Mars and the seven hills.
There is a strong sense of history that is delivered in this book, on several levels. History as we know it happens to the amulet-bearers: at times they can only respond to it, and at other times they are active participants in it. If the amulet had eyes, it would have seen Rome turn from a crude village into a mighty empire: it sees an army approach the city intent on burning it, only to be stopped by the lamentations of the city's mothers; the Gauls, making a mess of the city while a few defenders watch from the heights of the Capitoline hill; and the persistent collisions between the patricians and plebeians, leading to the Gracchi, Sulla, and eventually Caesar. At the same time, history as you've not heard it also comes into being. In the beginning, Saylor gives many of Rome's early legends plausibility, and I had to stop reading many times just to look up the character on Wikipedia to marvel at what Saylor was doing. (The story of Cacus was especially memorable.) Saylor's invented history becomes part of the book's "real" history, and it gave me some nice moments. When a character in the middle of the book scales the steps leading to the Capitoline, I couldn't help but think of why those steps were built -- to make sure in the future no terror could hide itself in the now-long-forgotten caves. I knew, too, whose head had been unearthed to give the hill its name. The facts of the early stories become the legends of the latter stories: a example of this is Julius Caesar presiding over the Lupercalian Games with great solemnity (as he's refusing the crown offered by Mark Antony, yet!), games that began with the actions of three mischievous boys very early on. One of those mischievous boys was Romulus, Rome's first king. The grounding amulet is another example: it begins the book as a simple lump of gold, is later forged into a winged phallus, only to lose its shape as the years wear on and become a lump of gold again* -- its significance lost to memory.
This book has a lot to offer to historical fiction fans, but especially to those fascinated by Roman history. Not only does it deliver eleven stories of men and women riding history's wake, but it comments on human history in general: the significiance of legends, the various uses of religion (some noble, some not), and most prominently on politics and power. I definitely recommend it. This will probably go down as one of my favorites.
A video of Saylor discussing the novel can be found here.
* It's not a round lump, but a cross-looking lump given what it used to be. This leads into the Christian era appropriately.